'white girl' is the most explosive portrait of nyc youth since 'kids'

Elizabeth Wood sounds off on her debut feature-length film, an intense and immediate depiction of no-holds-barred nihilism that’s based on her sophomore year in college.

by Emily Manning
11 March 2016, 3:45pm

Elizabeth Wood was 13 when she saw Kids. "My parents wanted me to watch it," Wood explains of Larry Clark's explosive profile of 90s youth at its most raw. "They were like, 'We need you to see this film, it's very important. It's what can happen when kids make mistakes. It's a cautionary tale.'" The Woods were a world away from the lawless Lower East Side Clark and his 19-year-old street rat screenwriter, Harmony Korine, immortalized -- they lived in Oklahoma City. It's sort of understandable for parents to take the film's unequivocally devastating outcome as scared-straight ammo, but, "if anything, it encouraged me to be worse behaved. Drugs! Sex! Cool! The danger of it was very appealing," confesses Wood. More importantly, though, it made her interested in film for the first time. "I'd never seen something able to tell a story that was so provocative and relatable." Five years later, she'd find herself on the same streets that cradled Casper and Telly's reckless sex and substance abuse -- studying film at The New School. After 15 more, Kids' producer, the legendary Christine Vachon, would help bring to life Wood's own deeply personal document of New York nihilism, White Girl.

Wood's debut feature-length film -- which premiered earlier this year at Sundance -- follows two 19-year-old white girls just about to begin their second year of college. As summer edges toward its end, Leah (Morgan Saylor) and Katie (India Menuez) move into an apartment in Ridgewood, a newly gentrifying Queens neighborhood. One night, Leah approaches a trio of Puerto Rican boys on the block looking to score a little weed. Although they caution her against speaking so candidly to strangers, eventually, the girls strike up a relationship with their new neighbors. Leah's budding love interest -- a melancholic heartthrob named Blue -- is selling blow to help support his ailing grandmother, though he refuses to touch the stuff himself. One night, Leah suggests the boys accompany her and Katie to a party in Chinatown thrown by Bad Magazine, where Leah is interning under a sleazy playboy with deep pockets and a nose for their goods. Hesitant initially, the boys are persuaded by the fact that rich hipsters will fork out three times more than their local junkies, so they come along and rake in the bread. Emboldened by this lucrative new market and his blossoming relationship with Leah, Blue makes a huge buy off a scary supplier just before he's popped in an undercover sting. To pay back the supplier and cover his legal fees, Leah must sell the "white girl" herself.

This film is not like Dope, a lighthearted drug scheme paved with easily reconcilable follies and a seemingly endless stream of lucky breaks. The situations these characters find themselves in and the strategies they pursue to rectify them are very real. That's because White Girl is based on Wood's own life. "My first film project was a documentary about the boys who lived on that corner, and me trying to get my friend out of jail," she explains. "It kind of contrasted their struggle -- selling drugs to get by but not doing them at all -- with my primarily white friends at film school at Parsons and Lang who were proudly doing tons of drugs and not taking school seriously at all. Shit got crazy, really out of control, and I thought, 'this has to be a movie.'" That said, she didn't make a biopic. Much like Korine drew from his personal history to achieve Kids' gripping authenticity, Wood amalgamates what she and her friends have seen and heard and felt to color a remarkably unflinching vision of contemporary youth on the edge. "I'm not trying to say, 'this is my story.' I'm consolidating an experience and a feeling into a film. But my goal was for it to feel real."

Much of Wood's authenticity was achieved in her carefully considered casting. "Finding someone like Morgan Saylor -- who's actually that age and was willing to explore the universe of this script -- was quite challenging. I'd get girls who wanted to play the role, who were ready to take that risk, but who were 29 or 30. I feel like there's a big psychological difference between a 19-year-old and someone in their mid to late 20s," Wood explains. She was wise to hold out for the Homeland star, who was 20-years-old at the time of filming. "She came in to read during a blizzard in a giant duct-taped fur coat over a bikini top and jean shorts. She just threw herself on the ground, legs spread, and did the scene. I had her send me experimental videos and each one just got increasingly crazy -- her stripping, drinking straight out of a bottle, dancing on a subway," says Wood. But according to the director, "It was so not her. She's a math major at the University of Chicago; she played a nun in her next film. She's super down to Earth and the easiest person to work with. It shows how brilliant an actress she is to pull this off."

It's true. White Girl isn't driven by friendship, romance, or even wealth -- at its crux are questions of power: racial, economic, sexual, geographic, and institutional. Leah enjoys having sex and taking drugs -- she's young and nihilistic, but autonomous. And yet, the film's white men perceive her self-determination as promiscuity or immorality, enough justification for their own perversions of power. Sexual encounters that begin as consensual experimentation quickly become exploitative and abusive. Recreation becomes dependency. Power and control are constantly shifting, at once seized and slipping. Though the powder Saylor's snorting is Vitamin C and the sex she's having is simulated, it's difficult not to feel with her character -- to experience that exhaustion, confusion, disassociation, and eventual blistering numbness. "We talked a lot beforehand. We started meeting pretty regularly for about six months before we shot," says Wood. "Whether it was how she styled her hair, or figuring out her wardrobe, what her room looked like, we really went through that process of discovering her character."

Though its characters are complex and its nuanced issues ambitious, White Girl manages to say so much without embellishment. It is perhaps the most important factor in driving the film's plot and its players' psychology, but the word "gentrification" is never spoken allowed. There isn't an iPhone to be found in the entire film. "There was an early draft of the script that I feel like really explained the thoughts the characters were having about race and gentrification and gender and it was much longer, 180 pages. We shot with an 80 page script," said Wood. "In films you should show, not tell. This film is super intense, so I often had to think about simplifying it." There's barely any dialogue at all within the last 20 minutes of the film, "when it becomes the result of everything that happened throughout -- these events that are kind of unspeakable," Wood explains.

That unspeakability is White Girl's most important component, both on and off screen. Wood anticipates strong reactions from all kinds of people, but following Sundance, she says blowback has come solely from "white men who were so offended by and cannot look past the sexuality. Whether in a review, or hate mail I was getting, or people walking out and yelling, they found it so overtly sexual as to be unrealistic and just for shock value," says Wood. In his Variety review, critic Peter Debruge suggests Leah "transforms" her rapist into a sexual predator. "As women, our idea of what is 'normal' -- how men can approach you, the weird and upsetting and fucked up shit that goes on -- men will tell you does not exist, that you're being dramatic. I have not heard a woman tell me that she thought it was unrealistic. They're the ones that have understood the best," says Wood. "Women go through some crazy shit that we don't really talk about, and that no one is supposed to know about -- strange moments that are hard to ever share or articulate."

It's for this reason that Wood's chief aim is for White Girl to inspire dialogue, be it inflamatory, celebratory, or anything in between. "How many times do you leave a movie and wonder what you're about to go eat for dinner? Is Chipotle still open?" she jokes. "I can't dictate or control or care about what people think or how they respond, I just hope that it does resonate in some way at all. Good, bad, we all need all of these feelings and I'm glad to give you them."


Text Emily Manning

White Girl
white girls
Elizabeth Wood
morgan saylor